Sorry about the pun. Here we go. I am the queen of speaking about things that people don’t feel comfortable addressing. So, I am now approaching the subject of body hair on women, both with and without MS. Why? Because it bothers me. Because in the world we live in today, women enacting their right to choose where/if they shave should be the least off the public’s concern.
I was probably around 14 years-old the last time I saw my under arms with hair. My friend Jenny and I were in the pool. When we got out, Jenny said, “You know you’re supposed to shave the hair under your arms? Do you want me to show you how?” I’m paraphrasing, but that is pretty close to what was said. I remember her laughing at me, and I felt ashamed. When I visited Europe with some friends, the waitresses in one particular place (I will never tell) all had big bushy armpits. All the American girls giggled at them and then we wondered why they, seemingly, didn’t really take to us.
As I grew up, I continued to shave everything, every day. Twenty-eight years since my “Jenny Incident”, and I have never seen myself with hair under my arms since. Well, I did, until my MS diagnosis… MS has changed my perception of the world, and what is truly important, and also what is not. Why is there such a focus on women’s body hair? Is that really something I should be spending my time on? I began thinking back to the root reason causing me to feel that I had to shave every day. Then one day I turned to my husband and said, “Papa (my husband), I have never seen myself with hair under my arms, don’t you think that’s weird?” His reaction was that of most American males, “Good! That’s gross!” My response was, “I don’t think I’m going to shave under my arms anymore. Who am I shaving for?”
From a cultural perspective, shaving seems to be associated with cleanliness, especially in regards to women. My husband has hair under his arms, and I lay tucked between his underarm and chin thinking nothing of the hair under his arms. Why then, do women feel ashamed? Why is it so gross for a woman not shave?
Patti Smith, my greatest rock-n-roll hero, had hair under her arms. It would soon become a distinguishable, and proudly presented, feature about her. So why isn’t it me? I have looked up the evolutionary reasons cited for having armpit hair and I was surprised to find that people are still fighting about it. Seriously. We know that sharks swam the ocean 200 million years before the dinosaurs, but we don’t know why we have armpit hair?
It seems as though we have this omniscient patriarch telling us from puberty that sexy women don’t have hair, except on their heads. I don’t know who that guy is, and why we all buy into his definition of femininity, but I’ve come to realize that I’m too old to care about him anymore.
Oddly enough, it connected to multiple sclerosis when I asked my friends on FB if they still shaved, and if they’d ever consider not shaving anymore. Most said, “I could never, but I applaud people who do.” And then my friend Nancy said, “Well, because of the MS, I can only shave one arm pit.” My heart dropped when I read it. I told her she was super punk rock, and I meant it! All the people that said, “Eww..” had no idea what a luxury it was to be able to easily shave. It is a luxury that isn’t afforded to many people with progressed MS.
Later, that same friend told me she had her head shaved because she could no longer wash it. I wrote to her, “I’d wash your hair if you lived anywhere near me. I would for you.” After I wrote it, I realized how intimate of a comment that was, but I meant every syllable. I’d wash her hair so she could keep society’s standard of “femininity” after losing so much to this disease. , That conversation with her fueled my desire even further to define femininity for myself; armpit hair and all.
All of this is neither hair nor there, it’s about being a bad ass woman even if you have MS. I want to be able to define femininity with an illness, with or without hair. Nancy feels sassy with her shaved head, she wears it like a crown. And me, well, I’m still stuck on my armpits, and I’ve changed my husband’s mind about armpit hair – he finds it sexy now. One bad ass step at a time. I think many times we are in our heads and bodies, trying to think of how to just ‘cope’ with MS. I’m challenging you to go one step further – be bad ass.